Il Leone, the hitch, and the wardrobe

Adored by fans for his courage, Nigel Mansell's motivation was brought into question at Mdaren. Having worn the colours of Lotus, Williams, Ferrari and McLaren, where does he go now?

The announcement that Nigel Mansell and McLaren have terminated their agreement has probably brought down the curtain not only on the F1 career of Britain's most successful racing driver, but on an entire era.

For over a decade Nelson Piquet, Alain Prost, Ayrton Senna and Mansell dominated the sport. Of course, the show goes on, but F1 supremo, Bernie Ecclestone, is acutely aware that it will be the poorer for the Big Four's absence. Which is precisely why he invested time and money to bring Mansell back to F1 with Williams, and then to keep him there with McLaren.

"Personally, it's a huge disappointment," says Ecclestone of the doomed marriage of convenience. "I wish he hadn't done it. I hope that it's only a tiff, if you like, rather than a divorce."

However, insiders suggest that you will need your duffle coat in hell before Mansell sets foot in a McLaren again. Ron Dennis insists the door remains open to Mansell, but it is worth recalling that technically it is still ajar for Michael Andretti ...

"I was surprised at the news because the guy's not a quitter, he's a fighter," maintains Ecclestone. "I'm surprised that he'd hang up the gloves so easily. But he needs motivation and he needs a will to be successful and go quick. For him to fight for eighth or ninth place is what? He's been a World Champion."

It is upon the shoulders of the current World Champion, Michael Schumacher, that much of the burden for perpetuating 'the show' will rest. "At that kind of age you come back to Formula One because you just love to drive," says the German of Mansell's return from his self-imposed Indycar exile. "But you also love to have the success. The situation is not the same for him as he had in 1992 and, therefore, if he doesn't have the same enjoyment it is best for him to stop.

"At that age you are too old to put the risk in any more. If you do not even think the crazy things any more, nothing will come out of it. At that age you have made your money. It is better to stop."

Approaching his 42nd birthday, the clock certainly ticks loud for Mansell. In many respects he is, in any case, a driver out of his time, a throwback to a past era. In a day when F1 drivers are superwaif clones, strong but wiry, he is out of step. As McLaren found to its cost — £300,000 for a bigger chassis — he is bigger in the arms and shoulders than the likes of Mika Hakkinen and David Coulthard, for whom the MP4/10 was envisaged. But that strength has always helped him take a car to the edge, and beyond, in corners. For all that the news bulletins mocked when it was revealed he failed to fit the McLaren's cockpit, Mansell is the sort of guy of whom it used to be said, 'He had muscles in his spit.'

Physically out of his time, maybe his mentality was too. He drove by instinct, and those instincts were gladiatorial. Where others would have flinched and backed off, Mansell was prepared to sit it out. Wheel-to-wheel at 180mph with Senna on that straight in Barcelona, there was something more at stake than just a position into a corner. Senna, of all men, would perhaps have appreciated that, and ceded the territory in a rare climbdown.

But success isn't born of determination alone. It has been said of Mansell that he only ever won when he had a car advantage. His 1992 F1 crown was achieved by leading a record number of laps, but to hold an advantage is one thing, to exploit it to the full quite another. Mansell usually smiles at such questions, and inquires whether any other drivers have ever held an advantage when they have been winning races.

The accusation was also levelled that he was too rough on his equipment. Cesare Fiorio, his team manager at Ferrari in 1989 and '90, refutes the suggestion. "I think he was the first driver who ever managed to use the electronic gearbox without all the electronics protecting from mistakes," he recalls. "At the beginning this was something you could do only with your feelings and with perfect co-ordination between your mind, your hand and your foot. He was the only one who could actually take advantage of that. The others, even Berger, and Prost at the beginning, had a lot of problems.

"People say he had no sympathy but, when you opened up the cars after a race, you could tell which driver it belonged to — inside his was often perfect. Of course, he was still taking everything from the car: if he could take 100 per cent, he would take 105..."

Just as many had to accept that he did, after all, have ability, so others, like Keke Rosberg, changed their mind about the man.

"I didn't want him in the team at Williams in 1985," he recounts. "I told Frank that, but he still went ahead! I based my judgment on stories I'd heard but, after a bit, it became clear that a lot of them weren't true. He was one of the best team-mates I had... Niko, my son, thinks that it's great his dad knows Nigel Mansell!"

Truth told, perhaps the British press would have preferred Mansell to have remained an under-achiever, for while we love an Eddie the Eagle or a Jeremy Bates, equally we delight in vilifying anyone who actually makes it to the top of their sport. Many of the specialists, you sense, never forgave him for surpassing the win tally of the likes of Stewart, Clark and Moss.

If Mansell felt persecuted, it was sometimes little wonder. After his victory in Montreal Jean Alesi remarked that he was all the more delighted to have won the race because the last Ferrari driver to succeed at the track had been Gilles Villeneuve. He was wrong, both Rene Arnoux and Michele Alboreto have won there since Villeneuve's '78 success. But the Frenchman was emotionally and physically drained after driving for almost two hours at one of the most demanding tracks on the calendar, and so he was excused the slip. Mansell, you fancy, would have been crucified for the error.

Admittedly, Mansell was renowned for his great displays of melodrama on the podium. When he flinched with pain climbing out of a cockpit, half of the British public winced with him — out of, in equals parts, sympathy and embarrassment. Every GP was always the hottest, the hardest, the roughest, the longest, the greatest of his life. But, for all that, people voted with their feet. The tifosi christened him ‘Il Leone' and, for as long as Mansell was in with a shout at his home GP, Silverstone had never had it so good. Or perhaps, in the case of the xenophobic following that led to the track invasion in 1992, so bad.

He was the People's Champion long before he was World Champion. Accordingly, he was a driver who thrived on adulation. With the '92 British GP in the bag, he worried everyone by setting the fastest lap with just two tours to go. Why? He said he did it for his public. How the journos hated that one...

Some fans may find it hard to reconcile the Mansell who would give his all, with the driver who so angered his team by choosing to park his car in Barcelona, rather than continue the fight. Patrick Head, Technical Director at Williams, is not so surprised.

"The sort of drives he gave at various times of his career depended upon great adrenalin charges, like some of the races with Nelson [Piquet]," he explains. "A guy would have to be pumped up for that, and to be pumped up he'd need to know that the car is good enough to get the job done. Then he'll get the rest of it done.

"Maybe this season some people don't think he's totally committed, but it all depends upon whether he's got a sniff of the front. If he thinks the car is good enough to be at the front, you've got total commitment."

Clearly, that was not the case at McLaren, Where the MP4/10's handling reflected its looks – ugly.

"If you try and say, 'Was he pushed or did he jump?’” says Dennis, "the simplistic approach would be to say – and this is an over-simplification of the conversation – unless you can give 100 per cent all the time, irrespective of any set of circumstances which present themselves, then you are not being a team player and you are not being honest with yourself. What do you want to do? The first thing is, 'Can you give 100 per cent?'

"And quite clearly the conversation that developed from that point saw us both agreeing to stop the relationship. There wasn't a resounding bang as the door slammed closed. It wasn't, 'Thank you and goodbye'. It was not like that."

Dennis stresses that there was no personality clash but, given his remarks about Mansell in the past, it would appear that the marriage was ill-conceived and barely consummated. It quickly emerged that both parties sought different pleasures: Mansell fervently wished for a crack at a second world title; McLaren, finding itself with an uncompetitive car, needed a team player.

The rift will only have been widened by the Briton's reluctance to test – something which upset Williams last year when Mansell was struggling to re-acclimatise from Indycar.

"I'm very sad that it should end like this," says Murray Walker who, in his role as BBC TV commentator, has got to know Mansell better than most. "I sympathise with Nigel not being motivated, because he's not confident in the car; I sympathise with McLaren for not wanting to keep him in that situation.

"With hindsight, I just wished he'd bowed out after Adelaide: 'There you are, I told you I could do it. Goodbye.'

"As a friend, I have to say I hope we don't see him back in Formula One. He's got nothing left to prove."

And, just as importantly, nowhere left to prove it.

His competitive nature rules out anything other than a top drive, and teams in possession of such seats give the impression that they would rather walk barefoot over broken glass than employ the former F1 and Indycar champion.

He has already driven for, and left, three of the Big Four: Ferrari is fishing for Schumacher, and would be hard-pressed to off-load Alesi after Montreal; Flavio Briatore concedes that he doesn't understand Mansell, nor would he sign him for Benetton; Ron Dennis is unlikely to become his golf partner.

Perhaps the writing was on the wall from the moment Williams rejected him in favour of David Coulthard.

"It wasn't anything negative about Nigel," insists Head, "but we added up all the 'fors' and subtracted all the 'againsts' obviously pounds, shillings and pence were in the 'againsts' column.

"Grands Prix are now race-long sprints, with new tyres and refuelling, and I think we felt that it was all very well being able to put together a brilliant qualifying lap, but you needed to be so fit that you could be close to that qualifying performance for every lap of the race. We felt that David would be stronger in that area than Nigel, simply because of the years and his level of fitness.

"Whereas David will go out to the gym, spend six hours there and be fascinated that his heart beat returns to, say, sub-58 beats per minute, Nigel's been there, done that, and he hasn't got quite the enthusiasm. Frankly, he would rather be out on the golf course. And who could blame him?"

If this is the end of Mansell's Formula One road, he leaves a legacy far beyond a statistical record third only to Prost and Senna. "He helped open up Grand Prix racing to a wider audience," admits Damon Hill.

In an era where everyone laments the lack of overtaking in the sport, Mansell will hopefully be remembered not for Barcelona 1995, but for jinking left-right past Piquet at Stowe in '87, pouncing on a for once hesitant Senna at the Hungaroring in '89, barrelling around a flabbergasted Berger on the outside of the Peraltada in '90, and his hard-nosed courage versus Senna at Barcelona in '91.

"Which drivers could you think of where you actually remember their individual overtaking manoeuvres?" marvels Head. "He got up many people's noses but, whatever it was, the guy was outstanding. And very newsworthy."

Maybe Nigel Mansell was thin-skinned and did harbour an inferiority complex bordering on paranoia. But perhaps that was why he drove the way he did – there was always something he had to prove.

"He was simply a great driver, always going faster in the car," reflects Frank Williams, with whom Mansell achieved all but three of his 31 GP victories. "He was often hard work out of the car. But worth it!"